Essay Example: The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Published: 2023-10-10
Essay Example: The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Essay type:  Book review
Categories:  Character analysis Writers World literature
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1921 words
17 min read

The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a book that features Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson as the main characters. The story is a detective fiction kind entailing a narration of various events that surround the existence and safekeeping of the Agra treasure. The expertise of Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Watson was called upon in this story as Mary Watson needed to know the details that surrounded the death of her father (Doyle, 2015). The story is centered around various themes; however, the write-up below will focus on the theme of empire and imperialism.

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Imperialism by definition could mean the act of one nation forcefully imposing a rule over other countries (MacKenzie, 2017). Empire, on the other hand, involves a state or a group of states often under the leadership of one ruler. The story "the sign of four" entails various elements that bring out the theme of empire and imperialism. To begin with, as Miss Mary Morstan gives her story, it sets an imperial backdrop. The novel achieves this as the case occurs in the period of the British Empire, and it takes up geographical points actively. Mary Mortsans' father was an officer in the Indian regiment of the British forces, and she studied in Scotland. The story is set historically back to 1878.

Secondly, the idea of an empire is correlated with a sense of luxury and wealth. In Thaddeus' narration, he covers the fact that to the Victorians, empire implied that they had wealth and power. He states “Two great tiger-skins thrown athwart it increased the suggestion of Eastern luxury” (Doyle, 2015). In the phrase “Eastern Luxury” we view him associating the empire directly to wealth.

Thirdly, it got evident that the success of the British Imperial government was tied to the foreign colonies that were under it. Mr Watson, on meeting Miss Mary is attention was captured by the accessories from India she had on. Briefly described "a small turban of small dull hue relieved only by the suspicion of a white feather in the side"(Doyle, 2015). The larger frame of the accessories was made of materials acquired from the colony states. They, however, did not give reference to the colony states instead behaved as if to imply that every expensive item belonged the British imperialists.

The British that often visited the colonies acted in a manner that suggested that the wealth was theirs for grabs. Abdullah Khan tells Jonathan Small that the provinces are a source of wealth to the British imperialists. The imperialists de-valued the people who lived in the colonies. They did not pick up anything personal to them, such as their culture and values. They saw their values to be below them. The imperialists, however, did not tire from grabbing their land ad their gems (MacKenzie, 2017). The Agra treasure that Sherlock Holmes is tracing belongs originally to the Indians, but they do not intend on returning it to the owner; rather, Miss Mary should have it. Small’s feels like he was entitled to the treasure while he stole it from an Indian prince at first.

Also, the British Imperialists were accustomed to belittling the people from the colonies. Imperialists often saw them as less than in all capacity. For example, as Small described his mate Tonga, he says "Staunch and true, was little Tonga" (Doyle, 2015). This brings out the inferiority complex using the term "little." He equates Tonga's devotion to him to Tonga, viewing him as better than himself. The attitude above could get described as naïve and uninformed as Tonga might have as well just been a loyal and faithful friend. Not that Tonga considered Small as a master but as a friend.

Descriptions given to Tonga depict racism at its prime and connect with the idea that black people are inferior to white people. Tonga gets characterized as “animal” rather than human. Tonga dies without even once having put in any of his input. He was intended to represent the ultimate “other,” that never got into the close circle of the plot’s development. His weapon gets described as nothing in comparison with the advanced Western pistols. It echoes loudly how the British Empire got to extending a vast network of power across the entire world.

Major Sholto also voices the racist idea that black people are inferior to white. As they were executing the plan that could save him from his gambling debt he saw it fit to rescue Small and leave out the rest of the black men that could help in the success of the mission. Major Sholto did not perceive the black men as necessary for the task to take place. In his own words, he said: “what have three black fellows to do with our agreement?” (Doyle, 2015). He thought that the mission would have been better if the black men were far away from it.

Despite Tonga and Small being on the same mission, the writer of the novel paints Tonga as a savage and Small as the honourable heroin figure. Tonga was after the treasure just as Small was after the wealth. Tonga was, however, an Islander whereas Small was British. Tonga being referred to a savage while Small was referred to as honourable despite being lustful and acting ruthlessly to acquire the treasure as Tonga depicts the inferiority complex. Tonga was seen as an inferior foreigner as compared to Small basically because he came from the Island while Small came from the empire. Small at the end of the book is offered a sense of moral virtue as he opened up and spoke his truth. With this show, he distanced and separated himself from the evident evilness of Tonga.

Besides the colonies and the British empire were not in good terms. If the British Empire and the colonies worked together as one rather than the empire, implying that it was more significant, they would have been mutual co-existence and understanding between them. In 1882, the story tells us that Major Sholto received a letter from India that gave him shock from which he did not recover from. It implies that from Major Sholto’s doings, he had made enemies in India who would write him letters that were not to suggest good but instead would have an implication of harm. The news in this letter was hurtful enough that the end of April met him on his deathbed.

Moreover, Bartholomew's death paints a picture of the British foreign reign taking over the colonies by force. Bartholomew’s death got accredited to the long dark thorn that was in the side of his head. “Holmes picks up a note by the body, which once again reads “the sign of the four.” He also notices a long dark thorn stuck” in the side of Bartholomew’s head." The thorn was from one of Tonga's blow dart. The part above could be symbolic as it shows how the foreign influence penetrated their lands. All they did was kill and take what they wanted by force. At this point, Tonga does this without seeking clearance from Small. It implies that from his judgement that was how Small carried out his events intending to acquire properties from the colonies.

As Holmes found the casing that contained extra sharp poisoned thorns on the roof, it was clear to him that the perpetrator of Bartholomew's death would not have a chance to carry out the same attack. It means that the foreigners require weapons to be able to penetrate the colonies and take up their gems. Without weapons they are hopeless and do not have access to unlimited power. In the same line, there is a division between the whites and the non-white that is clear. Holmes reminds Watson that, according to Thaddeus, Sholto once shot at a white man with a wooden leg. According to Thaddeus' story, he did not mention that guy with the wooden leg was white, but the fact that that was Holmes first response to the situation implies that there was a rift between the races.

Cain in his analysis implies that Doyle giving the guards watching Small’s cell Arabic names (Mahomet Singh and Abdullah Khan) instead of true Punjabi ones was intentional (Cain, 2016). The same guards are presented as the orchestrators of the plot. It gives Small an escape route of which he can claim without a doubt that whatever happened was not as a result of his doing but as a result of the guards did. Small's later promises safety for those at the fort. It can be classified as also another attempt for the writer to present him as morally upright and relatable. The writer, therefore, displays the picture that the whites are morally relatable as compared to the alternative colonists. It implies that the whites often do individual acts for the eventual good it is just that it may not be recognized as that until the results come to surface. It supports the saying that “the end justifies the means.

Lastly, With the Sherlock homes character, the book sufficiently brings out imperialism in the Victorian era. Sherlock Holmes acts as the protector of the society tasked with fighting against the barbaric and savage natives. He does everything in his power to counteract the people rebellious to British colonies; those who intimidate the stability of the empire’s heart. However, at the same time, he cannot resist his addiction to exotic products. It symbolized how imperialists relied heavily upon the irresistible economic stimulation offered by colonies (O'Dell, 2012).

The novel records a conflicting feeling among the British towards colonialism. Where on one side it displays them wanting to stop colonialism while in another due to the benefits they sought to gain they decided not to stop it. Although Sherlock Holmes is influenced by imperialism, he represents a spirit of sophisticated analysis and the use of substantial evidence to solve problems. It is then possible to do away with imperialism for the sake of seeking justice to the people who deserve it.

In conclusion, the theme of the British Empire and imperialism is evident in the book “The Sign of Four.” The element of the British Empire ruling over other little states forcefully comes out clearly. The story was staged in the 1800s at the time when the British Empire operated colonies. The geographical stage of Morton's’ story is also accurate. Everything that seemed luxurious was linked directly to the empire thus, the empire was a symbol of wealth and power. The British people often looked down on the other races demining their culture and their mere existence. Their weapons are described as superior, and their race is categorized as more human. The British Imperialists often went down to the colonies and took what they had forcefully. The Agya treasure was fought over by the foreigners, yet solemnly belonged to an Indian prince whom they did not consider as worth it to possess the wealth. The treasure was not given to them, but instead, they stole it.


Cain, P. J., & Hopkins, A. G. (2016). British Imperialism: 1688-2015.

Cazorla, J. S. R. Threatening the Victorian Empire: Colonialism and Womanhood.

Doyle, A. C. (2015). The sign of the four 1890. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.

MacKenzie, J. M. (2017). Passion or indifference: Popular imperialism in Britain, continuities and discontinuities over two centuries. In European empires and the people. Manchester University Press.

O'Dell, B. D. (2012). Performing the Imperial Abject: The Ethics of Cocaine in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four. The Journal of Popular Culture, 45(5), 979-999.

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